Art by Flick Ford
Small V-wakes form on a glass surface, almost unnoticeable to the untrained eye. After hours of squinting through salt-stained sunglasses, I’m unsure that what I’m seeing is real. Maybe rays, maybe porpoise — I don’t want another false alarm. But as we get closer, dark backs materialize, and the heart rates aboard skyrocket.
“Twelve o’clock! Twelve o’clock!” I scream as half-asleep anglers on beanbags scurry to grab 8-foot rods with giant spinning reels hanging off the butt sections. Nine-inch poppers and stick baits fly in the direction of the fish. Like someone dropping a grand piano into the water, there’s a violent explosion as a fish smashes the plug and white water erupts.
And then time stands still.
What follows is a pure adrenaline dump. Hundred-pound braid screams off a reel with the drag locked down. Line rips through the water, making an inexplicably beautiful sound. The rod flexes at impossible angles. Everyone screams colorful expletives as the reel dumps 200 yards of line before I can get the boat in gear to chase the fish. Beautiful chaos.
Yeah, man: Bluefin tuna are awesome in so many ways. They are the ultimate fish. As far as I’m concerned, nothing — really, nothing — beats them.
Extraordinarily powerful, they are pure muscle. Even the small ones feel thick and heavy. And when you stick one, you understand right away that they are one of the fastest and perhaps the most hydrodynamic fish in the ocean. Pectoral fins fold into neat little pockets on the sides, and back fins fold down, forming a streamlined missile capable of generating 40 knots of line-ripping speed. Yellow dorsal “finlets” on the top and bottom of the tail section operate like little keels, moving port to starboard, allowing for extraordinarily quick changes in direction. And those tails: Not only do they propel the fish at crazy speeds, but they are also the subject of artists around the world.
While they often don’t translate to film, the colors of such fish are extraordinary. Lots of blues that mesh into yellows, which morph into silvers. Some fish have vertical stripes; some don’t. But what’s truly unique about these fish is that they get big — ahem, really big. Upward of 1,000 pounds. The world record? Freakin’ 1,496 pounds, if you can believe it.
Think about all this for a second. If you’ve ever caught false albacore, skipjack, blackfin or any small tuna for that matter, you know well the power and speed. Multiply that by 100, and, well, you can imagine. Maybe.
Yes, there are diminishing returns on fish north of the 200-pound mark. While certainly there are a few 300- to 400-pound fish landed on spin gear each year, most fish over the 250-pound mark just aren’t doable. And in my humble opinion, the fun factor diminishes on fish over 150 pounds.
While I certainly don’t turn my nose at such larger fish, and will throw at them all day, such fights are generally punctuated by a breathtaking surface take; a few superfast, superlong horizontal runs; and then what’s sometimes hours of vertical tug of war, where you gain 10 yards, then lose 10. I’m not sure who originally said this, but it’s absolutely true: For the first 30 minutes, you’re terrified you’re going to lose the fish; for the next 30 minutes, you’re terrified you’re not going to lose it.
Seriously, it’s not all that fun when you’re not making any headway, and various muscles start cramping. Usually such fish require a team effort. If you’ve never done this, it’s easy to think that anyone passing off the rod is weak — until it’s your turn, and after 15 minutes your lower back begins to spasm. Even the young, buff guys can’t handle it.
Yes, there are captains, particularly the handful in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, who target and land those larger fish, but for most of us mere mortals, it’s just too damn much work. But those 80- to 150-pound fish, even the 200-class ones for those stud anglers who like to break their backs, are downright awesome. Exceptional animals. I love them, as many of us do. And it’s not a stretch to say we worship them.
We wait all year for their arrival and dedicate a month or two to doing nothing but seeking the adrenaline surge that comes with the initial, violent top-water strike and a handful of burning runs, and, of course, the grin-and-grab shots that create oohs and aahs even from non-anglers.
Yes, the tug of war can be exhausting. And God knows these fish absolutely destroy expensive gear. But when you land one of these beasts, there are high-fives, and hoots and hollers all around. Pure f’n joy.
It is the only time I see old grumps (myself included) act like kids. You just can’t put a price on that.
Capt. John McMurray is owner and operator of One More Cast Charters in Oceanside, New York, and president of the American Saltwater Guides Association.